9 ways to amp up a pull-up
For most, chin-ups are a staple in their upper body workouts, while some feel more comfortable sticking to the lat pull-down machine. But, for those competent in doing 10 solid reps (dead hang and no swinging), progressive overload must be applied to ensure continued progress in strength and size.
First, some lingo:
Chin-ups use a double underhand or supinated grip.
Pull-ups use a double overhand or pronated grip.
Neutral grip pull-ups involve performing a pull-up on two parallel bars with the palms facing each other.
Second, correct technique:
So we’re all clear, pulling your chin just over the bar is not a full repetition. Finishing with the elbows beside your ribs actually brings the top of your sternum to the bar, not your chin. So the term chin up is a misnomer—they should be called sternum-ups.
When doing pull-ups, keep your shoulders away from your ears. When pulling yourself up, pull your shoulder blades down toward your hips. Keep your chest out and neck in a neutral position. Reaching for the bar with your chin is wrong. It’s tempting, but wrong. Once you pull your sternum to the bar, lower yourself under control to a slight bend in your elbows. At this point, don’t let your shoulders shrug upward. Keep them down in preparation for the next rep.
Scissor your legs to prevent any swinging. Driving your knees upward and swinging doesn’t constitute perfect reps; neither does kipping. If you do CrossFit and need to hit your reps, you’re going to kip, but if you’re looking to increase the size and strength of your back muscles, dead-hang pulls are the way to go.
We can obviously progress pull-ups by adding more reps to each set, but why not add a little spice?
START: Take your pull-up to the next level >>
1) Add some weight
Exercise: Weighted Pull-ups
Just as you would add weight to your bench press or deadlift, why not add weight to your pull-ups? A belt works great for hanging weights off your hips but if you don’t have one, don’t worry. Placing a dumbbell in the back of your knee works just as well.
Before getting your grip on the bar, place a dumbbell in the back of your leg. Flex your knee to hold the weight in place. Grab the bar and pull! Make sure not to straighten your leg otherwise you’re going to lose the dumbbell. This also works well for removing any swinging, as you can’t kick in between reps. Switch legs every set.
NEXT: Mixed Grip Pull-Ups >>
2) Mix up the grip
Exercise: Mix Grip Pull-ups
Who says you have to hold the bar with the same grip all the time? Add some variety to your pull-ups by mixing up your grips. Use a pronated grip with one hand and a supinated grip with the other. Or use a neutral grip combined with a pronated grip or a neutral grip combined with a supinated grip.
NEXT: Towel Grip Pull-Ups >>
3) Throw in the towel
Exercise: Towel Grip Pull-Ups
Common in Judo and Jujitsu, fighters will use their "gi" when weight training to improve grip strength and endurance. Improve your grip strength by doing towel grip pull-ups. Wrap two hand towels around a chin-up bar. Twirl them tightly so you can get a good grip. Carefully hang off the towels and perform pull-ups as usual. I like doing these types of pull-ups for sets of 8 or more. The increased duration of the set will blast your forearms like no other exercise. Oh yeah, your back and arms get a good pump too.
NEXT: L-Sit Pull-Ups >>
4) Add in some abs
Exercise: L-Sit Pull-Ups
Hanging knee raises and straight leg raises are commonly seen being performed on their own. Try adding a straight leg raise isometric (90 degrees at your hips) to your pull-ups to crank up difficulty. Not only will your abs get hit hard, so will your back. You can do one of two variations: raise your legs up before each rep or maintain the leg raise isometric throughout the set.
NEXT: Typewriter Pull-Ups >>
5) Add in some lateral movement
Exercise: Typewriter Pull-Ups
Grab a pull-up bar with an overhand grip slightly wider than shoulder width apart. Pull yourself up until your sternum is at the bar. Now, move your body toward one hand taking some of the weight off the opposite hand. Keep your sternum at the bar. Return your body to the center and repeat on the opposite side. Return back to the center and lower your body under control. That is one rep. This variation is great for increasing time-under-tension.
NEXT: Plyometric Pull-Ups >>
6) Make it explosive
Exercise: Plyometric Pull-Ups
Just as you can perform a jump squat or plyometric push-up, you can also perform a plyometric pull-up. Grab the bar with a double overhand grip just about shoulder-width apart. From a dead hang, pull yourself upward explosively. The top of your sternum should pass the bar as your hands release, allowing you to get some airtime. As you descend, grab the bar again and decelerate your body. If you have more coordination and quickness, you can attempt clap pull-ups. Perform the explosive pull-up as mentioned above, but try to clap your hands when you’re airborne. Return your hands quickly to the bar and decelerate your descent.
NEXT: Pull-Up 21s >>
7) Perform partial reps
Exercise: Pull-Up 21s
Doing 21s involves 21 reps: 7 bottom half reps, 7 top half reps and 7 full range reps. Great for increasing time-under-tension, pull-up 21s, are difficult, but great for giving your back some width. Grab the bar with a supinated, pronated or neutral grip. Perform 7 bottom half reps. Perform 1 full rep to get to the top. Now perform 7 top half reps. Lower yourself to the bottom and perform 7 full range reps. As you fatigue, try not to cheat by kicking or swinging your legs.
NEXT: Ring Pull-Ups >>
8) Use rings
Exercise: Ring Pull-Ups
Suspension trainers (e.g. rings, TRX, Blast Straps, Jungle Gyms, etc.) are great for allowing the joints to move freely. If you do pull-ups frequently, I would strongly recommend using suspension trainers, as they will be easier on your joints. My favorite version of the ring pull-up is the pronated to supinated grip pull-up. Set up a suspension trainer and start with a pronated grip. Pull yourself upward, rotating your arms to a supinated grip. At the top, your elbows should be at your sides with your palms facing inward. Lower yourself under control and rotate your arms back to a pronated grip.
NEXT: The Rope Climb >>
9) Climb a rope
Exercise: The Rope Climb
The ultimate upper body pulling exercise is the old-school gym class rope climb, without, using your legs. Most commercial gyms don’t have ropes, but if you have access to one, make good use of it. Sit on the floor while holding the rope. Start pulling yourself up. Keep your legs out and refrain from kicking too much. Reach the top of the rope, and lower yourself under control also only using your hands. You can’t beat the hands-only rope climb for building size and adding strength to your back and arms.
Rope climb variation video: The Pole Climb
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Jon-Erik Kawamoto, MSc Kin(c), CSCS, CEP, is a Strength and Conditioning Specialist and Fitness Writer out of St. John's, Newfoundland, Canada. He contributes regularly to many major health and fitness magazines and websites and is currently in the middle of a master’s in exercise physiology at Memorial University. Check out more of his work at www.JKConditioning.com.